"The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer": Book Review

"The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer"
Edited by Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger, and Eric Davis
Alfred A. Knopf, 462 pp., $65 (oversize)
Reviewed by David Marshall James

Johnny Mercer's career trajectory took a different path from those of such other top lyricists of The Great American Songbook as Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart, and from those of the composer/lyricists Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.

While those gifted gentlemen wrote chiefly for Broadway (and their songs were thus ineligible for Academy Awards when the shows were made into films), Mercer received eighteen Academy Award nominations for Best Song, garnering four wins.

Mercer also collaborated with a vast array of composers, from Hoagy Carmichael to Henry Mancini, and even with such surprising partners as Fred Astaire and Barry Manilow. He even composed some of his own melodies, although close friend and singer Margaret Whiting states that he was not an accomplished pianist.

He did have some modest Broadway successes, including "St. Louis Woman" and "Top Banana," along with the bona-fide hit "Li'l Abner" (try getting "Jubilation T. Cornpone" out of your mind), but writing for the movies was his forte.

He penned full scores for such classic MGM musicals as "The Harvey Girls" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Both films carry a Western flavor that pervaded many of his lyrics, dating back to "I'm an Old Cowhand," an enormous hit for Bing Crosby during the 1930s.

Mercer was a fixture on radio during its heyday of the '30s and '40s, following a few acting turns on Broadway and in several movies. He cofounded Capitol Records during World War II and could have settled back on its proceeds.

However, even though he wrote the lyrics for such standards as "Blues in the Night," "That Old Black Magic," and "One for My Baby," his glory reached its ultimate transcendence during the '60s, with the megahits "Moon River" and "Days of Wine and Roses," both of which won Academy Awards.

One of the delights of reading this volume is running across a lyric and thinking, "Gosh, I didn't know he wrote that, too!"

That was this reader's reaction to "While We Danced at the Mardi Gras," a perennial favorite at the balls masques in New Orleans. Mercer was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia; thus, many Southern motifs run through his oeuvre, among it such toe-tappers as "The Dixieland Band."

Bette Midler incorporated such Mercer songs as "P.S. I Love You" and "I Remember You" into her underrated film "For the Boys." The former was a personal favorite of the lyricist. The latter was one of multiple songs Mercer penned that were influenced by his intense affair with Judy Garland in the early '40s. She went on to introduce his Oscar-winning "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe."

Another surprise here is discovering the delightful lyrics (music by Andre Previn) to the stage show "The Good Companions," based on the novel by P.G. Wodehouse and originally starring John Mills and Judi Dench. Other unexpected treats include the extended verses Mercer composed for his Christmas cards.

Johnny Mercer's lyrics never went out of fashion during his lifetime. He was already a success by the early '40s, and he was a gigantic success during the '60s. Something exquisitely witty and perfectly worded, something universal that pierces the core of the soul, emerges from his many and varied works. That astonishing talent is on full display in this splendid volume, proving that his songs have remained pure and true, and that his dreams live on.

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